For Cesar

Chef Cesar Romero runs the kitchen at Wildflower, an upscale restaurant in Casas Adobe.

(Photo by Noelle Haro-Gomez)

When Cesar Romero was 11 years old, he started cooking for his family. While his parents worked, somebody had to get dinner on the table. He loved food and its preparation so much, he did didn't mind.

“When I was about 11, my mom went back to work, so I was actually cooking for my brothers,” he said. “I had my hands early in the kitchen.”

Romero is now satisfying palates on Oracle at Wildflower Restaurant, where the style is New American with a hint of Asia and Mexico.

The interior is a bit hushed and the service impeccable. Everything here is prepared fresh. In the back, one might see a huge metal bowl of hot clam chowder chilling in a sink full of ice. There’s a hot grill with flames licking the sides of a frying pan. Chef is preparing a New York strip or pan-roasted chicken to order.

Romero, however, didn’t begin his career at the high end of the restaurant spectrum. His beginnings were humble.

He started his career at 18 as a dishwasher at San Diego’s Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, where he worked his way up. To watch the chefs work, Romero finished his tasks quickly.

“I would just try to get my work done so I could start prepping,” he said. “Then they (officially) moved me to prep, so I learned all that. Finally, I got moved to the line, and that’s when I really started to get experience because I didn’t go to (culinary) school. My parents couldn’t afford it, so I just bought books and books and books.”

He bought the study guide for the Culinary Institute of America and learned to make mother sauces, the foundation of sauces used in American cooking, as well as how to use and take care of his knives properly. Then he practiced.

“On my days off I was cooking,” Romero said. “When I went home after work I was cooking. I was just trying to figure it out because I just have a passion for food.”

Romero has been creating in the back of the house for more than a decade. He worked at the Cheesecake Factory, hiring and training staff, and opening the stores.

Locally, he has worked at Snooze, where he once again found himself a student. Still, chef Marlene Portillo, who trained him there, said one of Romero’s best qualities is that he can take the heat and use it to improve his dishes.

“I remember the first time he was on the line, and he prepared over-medium eggs,” Portillo said. She sent them back. “As I was leaving, he said, ‘I overdid those eggs.’ I said, ‘I know you did,’ but after that his over-medium eggs were amazing. He takes constructive criticism really well, and he learns from it.”

Romero has had his share of disasters. One happened on a Sunday.

“One of my biggest kitchen disasters was when I worked at the Cheesecake Factory; it was the Fourth of July weekend,” he said.

“We had just opened up a new patio, and that particular Cheesecake was No. 5 in the company (in sales); we did about half a million dollars a week.”

The new patio sat another hundred diners. Everything was going fine — and then, “at 8 p.m. the dishwasher breaks down,” he said.

“Because it was a holiday and the weekend, we couldn’t get a repairman to come out, so everyone had to pitch in (washing dishes). We had plates lined up on the floors, all in the back. I was there until about 5 or 6 in the morning washing dishes.”

He has another memory, his first food memory, at his grandmother’s house.

“She would make sopa de fideo, but it wasn’t fideo, it was elbow macaroni,” he said.

Fideo is pasta that’s shaped like little pieces of vermicelli or capellini.

“She would make me a bowl with tomato broth and the elbow macaroni, and she would give me a stack of three American cheeses to throw in there. It just became this cheesy broth. That dish and also her Mexican rice were phenomenal.”

But back to today.

One of the best things about working at Wildflower, he said, is it’s a teaching kitchen. Although staff members move on as they are trained, it’s a very satisfying aspect of the job.

“I have a lot of young guys here and they move on,” Romero said. “I’ve actually promoted about three sous chefs here.”

Even though Wildflower’s kitchen is visually accessible to diners, it is hot; without air conditioning. Summertime can be particularly trying—add to that the hard work of prepping, cooking and cleaning Still, Romero and his staff come back every single day.

“I do it for the reaction of the guests,” he said. “I love making people happy. Just taking that first bite of something that I created…Making it an event: someone’s birthday, a funeral even, an anniversary, just making that moment special. I just love it.”

Wildflower is Romero’s last kitchen. This is where he hopes to end his career, unless he moves up to the corporate kitchen, where he gets to design the recipes served.

“That’s something I would strive for,” Romero said

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